Portable brain monitoring and stimulation devices, also known as brain wearables, are gaining presence in the global healthcare market, but their reliability is still being called into question. Brain wearables often use transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) to treat a variety of neuropsychological conditions.
Meta-analyses show promising results for stroke recovery, depression treatment, and improving corticomotor excitability. However, the research is still very preliminary, casting doubt on how these devices could possibly work in a clinical setting or for preventative care.
In this article, we’ll address what brain wearables are, including examples, their challenges and opportunities, words of caution, and 8 ways they may affect healthcare in the near future.
What is a Wearable Device for the Brain?
Brain wearables are a part of a large, and growing, field of products within the category of wearable tech. You might recognize popular wearable tech like the Fitbit, which tracks everything from heart rate to calorie burn.
Wearable neurotech often comes in one of two variations:
- Electroencephalogram (EEG) headsets: brain monitoring devices that provide objective neural data and neurofeedback.
- Transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) devices: directly stimulate the brain to achieve a healthcare related or performance enhancing goal.
The Rise of Wearable Technology
There's no doubt that wearable technology is on the rise. In 2021, the global market for wearable brain devices was valued at USD $247.8 million with North America taking the highest revenue share of 60.08%. And it's only expected to grow with a compound annual growth rate of 12.33% up until 2030.
But what makes them stand out from traditional hospital treatments? While there are clinics equipped with specialized neurotech devices, these tend to be bulky and stationary. They offer neurofeedback for ADHD treatment, transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) therapy to reduce depression symptoms, deep brain stimulation for treating movement disorders, or EEG testing to monitor brain activity.
Unlike their stationary counterparts, the wearable devices available today give your patients convenience and agency. They have the freedom to choose a less invasive cognitive performance device so they can take their treatments at home or while they go about their everyday activities.
Global Trends in Wearable Technology
- USD $247.8 million – global market value in 2021
- +12.33% – compound annual growth rate until 2030
How Does Wearable Neurotech Work?
Neurotech tends to either monitor neural activity or electrically stimulate specific parts of the brain. Depending on the type of technology they use, wearable devices may help treat a variety of brain diseases.
Here are some common types of wearable devices and how they work:
EEG used to be limited to stationary devices in labs and hospitals, but new wearable EEGs allow your patients to monitor their brain waves day-to-day. This monitoring can cover a period of days, weeks, or even months. They typically come in the form of a headset or headband with electrodes placed on the scalp to detect small electric signals. The signals are stored as data for the patient and their healthcare provider to interpret.
While they may look similar to EEG headbands, tDCS devices are designed to stimulate, rather than monitor, the brain. Usually they send a low-grade electrical current via a headset placed on the scalp to stimulate specific parts of the brain.
But do at-home tDCS devices actually work? While some tDCS treatments can help with depression, anxiety, and cognitive symptoms, there are others which should be approached with a little more skepticism. Devices like Halo Sport, a brain wearable designed for athletes, claim to enhance all motor activities, but some studies suggest tDCS does not improve performance under certain conditions.
8 Ways Wearable Devices May Affect the Future of Healthcare
Despite their rising popularity, EEG and tDSC devices still require extensive testing. There simply needs to be more research done on wearable brain tech before the exact benefits, and drawbacks, can be determined. But if you're curious about how they may be used in the near-future, here's a list of brain diseases and mental illnesses they may be able to diagnose or treat.
1. Stroke Care
Stroke recovery is a long and arduous process. Finding ways to make rehabilitation less invasive and more effective is vital for a patient's long-term health. Research has shown that wearable tDCS devices can improve motor recovery. Specifically, tDCS stimulation can help chronic stroke patients recover motor function after they have suffered paresis of their upper limbs, making this a noninvasive and easier form of stroke care.
When it comes to determining if a patient has epilepsy, they often have to go through numerous clinical trials before a diagnosis is reached. EEG headsets may be a more convenient, and accurate, solution. Brain wearables can gather electrophysiological data remotely over a long period. This lets the patient enjoy their ordinary daily activities while also collecting a large amount of data over time—potentially leading to a clearer diagnosis without the need for numerous clinic appointments.
Every patient's struggle with depression is unique—which is why having a variety of treatments available is vital. Soon you may be able to add wearable tDCS devices to that roster.
A meta-analysis suggests that tDCS can help treat major depressive disorder. Clinical trials have found that brain stimulation can induce long-term changes in cortical excitability and brain activity. While more research still needs to be done, the positive effects of tDCS combined with its low rate of reported side effects make it a solid candidate for future treatments of depression.
4. Concussion and TBI
Recovery from concussion or traumatic brain injury (TBI) is a delicate process. A review on wearable technology has found that EEG devices can help with the systemic detection of mild traumatic brain injury—commonly known as concussion.
Quickly diagnosing concussion prevents patients from prolonging recovery via repeated injuries or strenuous activities. While more research is still needed, these devices show promise in their ability to identify on-site concussion with high accuracy and sensitivity.
Additionally, neurofeedback has helped treat symptoms of TBI. The study found that neurofeedback—from EEG-powered Muse headbands—has the potential to help TBI patients reduce their symptoms, especially those related to attention, mood, and mindfulness.
5. Parkinson's Disease
Diagnosing Parkinson's disease is notoriously difficult. Many patients are diagnosed when the disease is already in its later stages. However, it's been found that wearable EEGs can support the early detection and diagnosis of patients with Parkinson's disease.
By combining EEG devices with artificial intelligence (AI) and deep learning technology, research has found that it can remotely detect both motor and non-motor symptoms. Therefore, this technology may have the unique ability to help identify Parkinson's disease even before the brain neurodegenerative stage has been triggered.
Whether it's been diagnosed by a healthcare professional or through the assistance of a scientifically-validated assessment, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) has become an extremely common mental health and behavioral condition. But not all ADHD patients are willing or able to take prescription medicine like adderall.
The good news is there's research that suggests tDCS wearables can treat inattention symptoms for adults with ADHD. Daily treatment using a tDSC device at home significantly improved the inattention symptoms of the study's participants with no adverse effects. Additionally, none of the participants were on ADHD medication, making tDCS stimulation a potentially viable alternative.
7. Disordered Eating
Brain activity is directly tied to how patients suffering from eating disorders choose to consume their meals. That's how tDSC wearable devices can help. The electric stimulation of tDCS devices is effective for modulating the eating behavior of certain patients. The most effective outcomes were for patients who suffered from eating disorders that involved specific food cravings and overconsumption.
8. Regular Check Ups
EEG wearables aren't just for specialized treatments, as they can be useful for general practitioner (GP) patients as well. For example, a patient might use a commercially available EEG device to check on their sleep quality after experiencing fatigue, poor short-term memory, and a lack of concentration during the day.
Data from the device can recommend that they visit their GP. Once they book an appointment, they'll be able to share the data with their GP and open up a discussion about their cognitive health.
On the other hand, a GP might recommend that the patient use wearable EEG and neurofeedback as a form of treatment. Commercial EEG devices, like Muse, claim to improve relaxation and reduce stress—leading to wide-ranging uses in healthcare, including better sleep quality.
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Opportunities and Challenges with Wearable Brain Devices
While brain wearable devices can open up a wide variety of healthcare opportunities, they also come with their own unique challenges as well. After all, they are still relatively untested compared to other medical devices on the market.
Here are the pros and cons brain wearables bring to the table:
No longer confined to the limitations of a hospital or lab, wearable tDCS and EEG devices are easily accessible by patients in any location.
However, there are still dubious do-it-yourself (DIY) solutions and other questionable devices that have been rushed to market without sufficient research and validation, making it difficult to find truly reliable and scientifically-backed products.
Wearable devices for the brain come at a wide range of costs. While some budget options cost as low as USD $124, such as the Caputron tDCS device, others, such as the BrainTap Headset, cost up to USD $797 plus a $260 yearly subscription.
While this big price range makes wearable neurotech consumer-friendly, the issue comes with their dependability, safety, and medical reliability. After all, these devices are meant to stimulate one of the most important organs in a patient's body. Without medical credibility there will always be some degree of skepticism towards wearables that come at a low cost.
By gathering data, these devices allow your patients to take control of their own healthcare. It empowers them to monitor their own health and recovery progress without having to rely on constant check ups that break the flow of their daily lives.
The downside comes when the data these devices record is being sold to third-parties. Their mental privacy is at risk if neural data is being collected and sent to third-parties outside of the patient-doctor relationship.
One of the main benefits of wearable tech, routine cognitive assessments, and other forms of self-administered healthcare, is that your patients can detect any issues as soon as possible.
The downside is that most patients aren't healthcare professionals. There may be a higher chance of false information being shared as some patients use unofficial resources, leading to misdiagnoses and the misuse of medical treatments.
It's important for healthcare professionals to be aware of brain wearables and if they're being used by their patients. After all, your patient's well-being is a collaborative effort and—as a professional—you can help ensure that their at-home monitoring and treatments are being used responsibly.
Caution for the Use of Wearable Brain Devices
Not all wearable brain devices are medically backed or rigorously tested. This is particularly the case for DIY solutions (especially those made using homemade devices costing as little as $20). There has even been an open letter from neuroscientists urging people to use more caution, especially when seeking DIY wearables that attach 9 volt batteries to their brains.
When deciding if a product is backed by science or only claiming to be backed by science, here are a few warning signs to share with your patients:
- Celebrity review preceding peer review. It’s a good marketing technique, but it often covers up a lack of science.
- Internal studies presented as science, despite lack of peer review. Even when presented as a PDF formatted like a journal article, internal studies are no substitute for published, peer-reviewed research.
- Use of buzz terms. “Hyperplasticity” sounds good on an information page, but rarely comes up in scientific literature in this context.
- Untestable claims. Subjective well-being and rate of improvement are difficult for the average patient to measure, let alone separate from placebo effects and confounding variables.
The Future of Healthcare is in Your Patients' Hands
Wearable neurotech is part of a new wave of healthcare technology that is changing the way patients advocate for their own health. It gives them the opportunity for ongoing health monitoring and recovery for a range of conditions.
When it comes to the safety of these devices, it's always important to stay away from DIY solutions and look for technology that's research-backed and supported by science.
Alongside brain wearables, healthcare has evolved to incorporate other patient-empowering solutions. Telemedicine appointments exploded during the COVID-19 pandemic and continue to be a popular alternative to the traditional doctor's visit. Similarly, computerized cognitive testing offers patients and practitioners objective information about brain health, and assessments can be completed in the comfort of a patient’s own home.
By putting more power in your patients' hands, you'll be able to more closely collaborate and work together as equal partners on the road to better patient care and improved healthcare practices.
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